Phillip Sommerich

Circular syncing

10:14, 19th February 2016

When most ensembles celebrate significant anniversaries, it is the director who is bathed in the media spotlight, explaining founding principles and future directions. Not so Stile Antico, which celebrates its tenth anniversary: just in as the group’s performances, at this birthday party there is no conductor but 12 voices speaking and singing in harmony.

Today Stile Antico is internationally renowned and praised for the virtuosity and intensity of its chamber-music-like performances of Renaissance sacred works. Yet it was born not out of a charismatic conductor’s guiding vision, but the almost accidental gelling of a Cambridge student musical get-together into something more lasting.

As soprano and founder member Kate Ashby admits, even marking this as the end of the ensemble’s first decade is a bit of a cheat. ‘The tenth anniversary is of our group as a professional ensemble; we started in 2001 as a group of mainly first- year students. But Emma [Ashby], who sings alto, was actually doing her GCSEs at the time, so some of us were still at school. We just met up and enjoyed singing, so we would put on concerts during the holidays. We knew once we left university that we wanted it to carry on doing it but we didn’t know how far it would go or how seriously we would do it.’

From the beginning, there was no thought of having a conductor – this was just a group of friends sharing thoughts about repertoire they enjoyed singing. The sound and visual spectacle that provided soon became a hallmark. The singers usually form a semi-circle, and sometimes full circle, on stage so each member is in eye contact with the others, and that has created a distinctive closeness among the 12.

For some, though, that togetherness was already present. The aforementioned Emma is Kate’s sister, as is fellow soprano Helen – all founding members. ‘Helen and I were both at Cambridge along with a few other founder members. When we were getting a group together we realised we were short of an alto, so brought our little sister along,’ Kate explains. ‘Judging by questions after the concerts, I think a large proportion of the audience (especially in America) spend most of the concert trying to work out who are the three sisters.’

When the ensemble won the Friends of York Early Music Festival prize in 2005, they decided to go professional, hence the anniversary. One of the jury members was Robina Young, artistic director and producer for Harmonia Mundi USA, and she decided on the spot to record Stile Antico. Nine albums and a host of awards later, she has no cause to regret her decision. ‘I found this happy-looking bunch of singers who proceeded to sing beautifully,’ Young recalls. ‘They weren’t awarded the first prize but did get the audience prize, so I just waited a little while and approached them. It was such a joy to see people with the eye contact they have, acting like chamber music players.’

The intense personal communication that Stile Antico’s format demands is reflected in a consistency of membership. More than ten years on, six of the original 12 are still in the group. Several members are able to switch voice parts, and over the years all have learned to mix and match. ‘That’s why it is so difficult to find a replacement when someone leaves,’ Kate says, ‘because the voices are so particular.’

As the decade has progressed, so have the ensemble’s members, from students to parents, actual and impending. ‘We have a couple of babies due and four born in the past 18 months. For the first few years it seemed that the singing was being fitted around careers, and now the new challenge is families. It means things change and we try to have rehearsals on tours and people bring babies on tour.’

Tom Flint is the group’s most recent recruit, having joined in April 2013. Since coming to the UK from Australia in 2011, he has sung in several early music groups and as a lay clerk at Winchester Cathedral. He was welcomed into the family only seven months after his initial audition. ‘Every voice is important in the group,’ Kate explains, ‘but Tom is our low bass so he is very fundamental – literally – so we had to be sure he was right for it. He had to be the right kind of voice and personality, and to fit in socially as well.’ He rapidly identified the Stile Antico difference. ‘Partly it comes down to intensive rehearsal, so you get to know the repertoire really well. We establish ideas about tempi and phrasing, and once it gets to the performance stage there’s a huge reliance on listening across the group. On stage, the performers group as mixed voices rather than in parts to help every member hear the vocal blend. You can really clock into what people on either side of you are doing. There is a lot of visual communication as well. If, for example, you have a paired entry with somebody else you can read their body language as well. It starts to feel like a sixth sense.’

Every member of the group is able to – and does – suggest repertoire, and there is an online ‘wish list’ where works can be stored. Programmes are grouped around themes. ‘There is so much music in this repertoire, and so much history and theology that it’s nice to have a theme,’ Kate says. ‘The music was not written to be performed as an hour-and-a-half concert, so we try to give some coherence to the programme.’ The emphasis is on sacred works, Kate explains, because secular works tend to be just one voice per part. As Flint points out, most Renaissance composers wrote for church and court, so ‘when I sing Monteverdi I think of his secular music, and when you have a text change to sacred you can still sing in a madrigalian style’.

To mark the tenth anniversary, Harmonia Mundi is releasing an album for which each of the 12 members chose a favourite track. Flint’s choice was Tallis’ ‘In pace in idipsum’. ‘It is nice and low, good for my voice, rich but sparse. It ticks all the boxes for me.’ Kate opted for something more obscure: ‘Hortus conclusus’ by Ceballos. ‘It was in the very first concert we gave, so it is very nostalgic, and it is on our “Song of Songs” disc. It is only in four parts but it still somehow creates quite a rich harmony, and there is a real sultriness about it.’

Already in the can is Stile Antico’s Christmas album, titled ‘A Wondrous Mystery!’, on which grouped around sections of Clemens non Papa’s festive ‘Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis’ are Flemish and German Christmas carols and motets. An album of works by Giaches de Wert is also in the planning stages. ‘The more concerts we do, the more promoters ask us for particular works,’ Kate explains. ‘A promoter in Antwerp asked us for an entire concert of de Wert and so we found some lovely pieces which we recorded.’

The ensemble has been posing the question ‘Sacred or profane?’ as its concert theme this season. The programme, ranging from Dufay to Monteverdi, illustrates how folk tunes, chansons and racy madrigals were adapted for masses and other sacred works. The group averages about 40 concerts a year, organised to fit with family commitments, with the US now an annual pilgrimage. Works by contemporary composers are increasingly finding their way into Stile Antico programmes, usually blended with early works – such as a programme of motets by William Byrd and James MacMillan. The late John McCabe and Huw Watkins have tackled commissions to write for 12 unaccompanied voices that produce a distinctive sound; a commission from Nico Muhly, based on Shakespeare texts about sleep, will be premiered at the ensemble’s tenth-anniversary concert at Wigmore Hall in November.

The singers’ enthusiasm for education has been aided by the establishment of the Stile Antico Foundation, which has gathered enough funding for a series of school visits and workshops. In June, the first Young Singers’ Bursary enables two students from the University of York to pursue professional development and work with the group.

Flint is now an integral part of the Stile Antico family, after an ill-starred debut. ‘I was told that I had got the job on the day that we were leaving for the States,’ he recalls. By the time they arrived in the US, he had a raging chest infection and lost his voice halfway through the first concert. ‘We were very lucky on that tour we happened to bring four basses.’ Cold-weather ills dog all vocalists, but the ensemble’s on-tour crises have included cases of sunburn, sports injury and tummy bugs (on the occasion of their first foreign trip, to France, a vomiting bug wiped out 80% of the team). Just like any family’s history, in fact.

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